A Midlife Reassessment

To say the last few months have been hard is to understate the facts.

On May 16, my Mom called me. My Dad had passed away unexpectedly, coming inside after doing some yard work. I was initially in shock, and slow to move. A few days later I was on a redeye to Alabma to be with my Mom and help her.

On May 20, my Mom passed away while I was on the way to her from the airport.

The seven weeks that followed, with me living in their house in Alabma, are a bit surreal to me. There are observations I made after the shock receded, observations about the deep south and America, that might be appropriate at another time. Today’s post is about minimalism and knowing what is worth keeping. I share this not to invoke sympathy, but to help establish the thinking that unfolded.

My parents, it turns out, kept almost everything. Every piece of paper that came to them was sorted, filed, and boxed. Every work related paper, every roster, letter, or handwritten note, going back almost fifty years, was stuffed into boxes in their house. While some of it was interesting, fleshing out my own memories of events in life, a lot of it was just cluttering volume.

The papers were only the most visible tip on the iceberg. There was more, so much more. Clothes going back decades, boxes and boxes and yet more boxes of photos. I am a sentimental fool, but it didn’t take long for me to reach a point where it was all just stuff. It all began to lose meaning, especially knowing that there was a limited amount that I could actually bring back home with me, a finite amount that I could even given proper attention to.

Now that I am home, I look around the house, and I find myself re-evaluating what I’ve kept over the years. There’s plenty I’ve kept because of need or sentiment – but there’s also plenty of things crowding drawers and shelves that were kept simply because it was easier to keep than to try and figure out how to dispose of it.

Take my stamp collection. There was a period of time where I would buy estate lots of stamps because, invariably, there were a few really great stamps buried in the collection. That’s great, well worth the investment, etc., etc. But I didn’t do anything to get rid of the junk. I still have a box full of stamps on paper that isn’t even worth the scrap it’s attached to or the box that’s holding it. But I’ve kept it through two moves because it’s there. I’m not going to give up stamp collecting, sporadic as I am at it. I still enjoy the hobby, the history it brings me into contact with. But I a reassessing what exactly it is I’m collecting.

Minimalizing what you have in life doesn’t have to be about getting rid of everything but your toothbrush and the One Book You Will Always Read (I’d tell you what mine is, but then I know you’d judge me). But it does mean getting rid of the cruft. Maybe Marie Kondo has it right – if it isn’t bringing you joy or serving a purpose, why keep it? (Confession: I know of Ms. Kondo, but I’ve never read her book or watched the Netflix special she did, I only know of her methodology through secondary sources. If I’m grossly misrepresenting her, it’s completely in ignorance and not intentional.)

I think about that as I look at my stuff. I have a lot of books. Shocking, I know. But truth is, some of them are still here because they fill the shelf so nicely. The actual books were dissappointments when read. Why do I keep them?

I’m trying not to make any permanent, major changes right now. I know I’m still in shock, still recovering from seven weeks of diving in and trying to sort, categorize, and arrange what my parents took a lifetime to put together. All while subtly avoiding the fact of why I’m doing it, what circumstances brought me there.

In the months leading up to this Spring, I found myself ebbing into the digitial minimalism movement. Perhaps a bit extremely, but definitely with an eye to limiting my digital overexposure. But digital minimalism is just an opposite extreme who’s mirror twin is analog minimalism (putting it all in the cloud, removing what you have in the physical world). I’ve wavered between the two over the years, never finding my place in either, but convinced there had to be a way.

Now I think there is a middle ground. The path is thin and worn in places, but there is a way between the two extremes. A way to live life minimizing your footprint in each. A way to draw experiences, not objects (digital or analog), to fill your space. A middle path that can let you find just the right balance.

My next step, though, is in bringing order to the chaos I have now.

So, I wrote the bulk of this blog post over a month and a half ago now, but I let it sit. I wanted to be sure that what I had written in the moment was still true to my heart. That you are reading these words is validation that it is.

You all know how to find me. You know what rocks I hide under, and which ones are most likely to expose me. Me, I’ve got some writing to do.

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